by Mike Bielski
In 1949 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra fired long-time cellist Georges Miquelle. By spring music director Karl Krueger had alienated so many musicians that President Henry Reichhold threatened to fire the entire orchestra as a show of support for Krueger. This led the Detroit Athletic Club News to report in April:
“The one-man band parading under the aegis of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra may have played its last notes. Finally, the dissension, uncertainty, and contradictions produced by the unconventional methods of operation that have characterized the orchestra for the past several years have pyramided into a situation that can mean only the end.”
Soon after both Krueger and Reichhold agreed to resign, and the orchestra closed operations.
In 1951 John B. Ford, Jr. of the “Salt Fords,” famous for founding Wyandotte Chemical Corporation, came to the rescue. Rather than looking for a handful of deep pockets to fund the orchestra, he developed what he called the “Detroit Plan.” His goal was to find hundreds of benefactors to give pledges of “$1 to $10,000, but not a penny more.” In so doing, the orchestra was revived in time for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the City of Detroit, and the Detroit Plan became the blueprint for development departments in all sorts of non-profit organizations nation wide. How times have changed.
Once again the Detroit Symphony Orchestra finds itself on the verge of ruin, and funding issues have led to rancor between management and musicians that threatens the viability of the DSO as a major US orchestra. At the time of VP for Development Paul Papich’s resignation in 1996 the DSO had a healthy base of 25,000 donors. Since then the DSO has gone through eight VPs for Development, including four in the last four years. As of 2008 the donor base had dropped to less than 5,000. The constant turnover in personnel has led to a policy of only seeking the “low-hanging fruit,” returning again and again to a few very wealthy donors who regularly give large gifts to the orchestra. Obviously, this group’s patience and finances have both reached the breaking point, and not without reason. The current talk of salvation for the orchestra hangs on the hope that a single “Angel Donor” will sweep in and solve all of the organization’s financial problems with a single huge check, which, as far as plans go, is barely one step removed from winning the lottery.
It may be time for a NEW Detroit Plan. The musicians recognize this. In July, DSO oboist Shelley Heron wrote on the Musicians’ web site:
“With the community’s help, we will do whatever it takes to maintain the DSO as one of America’s major orchestras. We are more than willing to reach out to the community in an effort to help rebuild the breadth of the DSO’s donor base.”
However, it seems that the only appetite management has for raising revenue begins and ends with salary cuts. They even missed the opportunity granted to the Detroit Institute of Arts and The Detroit Zoo by the state legislature to request support from taxpayers in Southeast Michigan.
There are a lot of reasons to preserve the orchestra, and there are a lot of people like me who are not “low-hanging fruit” that would like to help any way possible. But why would we? Why would we give money to an institution that is willing to sacrifice world class for something less without a fight? Why would we support an institution that does not support its musicians? Why would we support an institution that is not developing a Strategic Plan for moving forward, and isn’t even sticking to the one they already have? What is the motivation for me and my family, who are struggling to make it every month, to sacrifice for an organization whose leader’s total compensation has gone up 10% over the past five years, while demanding everyone else takes cuts?
When you strip it all away- strip away management, strip away unions, strip away percentages, and cuts, and donations, and Detroit Plans- here’s what is left: The Detroit Symphony Musicians are presenting concerts, and scheduling more. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is not presenting concerts, and they are canceling more. If you believe, as I do, that the Orchestra is about presenting world-class performances, the argument about whom to support becomes very clear.